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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                       233

Alexei sighed, slowly undressed and piled his clothes
on the boulder. He always bathed in this secluded little
bay known only to himself, off this sandy spit hidden by
the wall of rustling reeds. Unstrapping his artificial feet,
he slowly slipped from the boulder, and although it was
very painful to step on the shingle with his bare stumps,
he did not go down on all fours. Wincing with pain, he
entered the lake and plunged into the cold, dense water.
He swam some distance from the shore, turned over on
his back and lay quite still. He gazed at the blue, limit-
less sky. Small clouds were hurrying across it, colliding
with each other. He turned over and saw the shore reflect-
ed upside down on the cool, blue, smooth surface of the
water, and the yellow and white water-lilies amidst their
floating round leaves. Suddenly he saw the reflection of
Olya sitting on the boulder, Olya, as he had seen her in
his dreams, in a printed frock. Her legs, however, were
not drawn in, but down, although they did not reach the
water—two ugly stums dangled over the surface. He slap-
ped the water to drive away this vision. No, the substitu-
tion method that Olya had proposed did not help Mm!

The situation in the South had become graver than
ever. The newspapers had long ceased to report fighting
on the Don. One day the communiqu6 of the Soviet In-
formation Bureau mentioned the names of Cossack vil-
lages on the other side of the Don, on the way to the Volga,
to Stalingrad. These names meant little to those who were
unfamiliar with these parts, but Alexei, who was born
and bred there, realised that the Don defence line had
been pierced and that the war had swept to the walls of
Stalingrad! That name had not yet been mentioned
in the communiques, but it was on everybody's lips. In
the autumn of 1942 it was pronounced with anxiety aad
pain; it was uttered not as the name of a city, but of a
near and dear one in mortal danger. For Meresyev, this
general anxiety was magnified by the fact tfctat Olya was
somewhere near there, in the steppe outside fee city, aa^J
who could tell what trials she would be subjected to?